I’ve been lucky from a very young age. When I was only a few months old, I was scheduled to have a leg amputation at a local hospital in Bogota. The night before the surgery that would’ve cost me my leg, my parents got a letter from Shriner’s Hospital for Children, telling them that their daughter, me, had been accepted for free care at the hospital. My parents walked to my doctor’s house in Bogota (he lived around the block) and told the very annoyed man that I would not be going through with the surgery. That letter, having arrived exactly on time, changed my life, and ever since then I have been lucky enough to have Shriner’s in my life, making the life I’ve led possible.
At a year and a half old, I got my first prosthetic leg from the hospital and immediately began to learn to walk. I became a fascination to my grandparents when I got back to Colombia and they followed me up and down, up and down the stairs, never getting tired of my newly discovered ability to conquer steps upright.
If you think buying shoes every few months for a growing kid is expensive, imagine what getting a new leg as often would cost you. Fortunately I can’t tell you, precisely, because that’s not something my parents or I ever had to worry about. Year after year, I got new legs, new feet, all of them destined to be scratched up, drawn on, dropped, soaked, and otherwise treated as a child’s belonging. With them, I got to partake not just in gym class, but in the dance classes at my school. I got to learn how to climb through the playground, roller skate, ride a bike, run away from my parents; all the things a well-meaning, sometimes troublesome child figures out. And through all of that I never had to think of myself as different, as more limited than my friends, as less able. I was always able to keep up.
When I was eight, I underwent a very long, complicated procedure designed to prevent my body from becoming lopsided over time. I spent a long time in the hospital, I had several surgeries. When things went wrong, the hospital just kept working on my case until they could set things right. I became close friends with the in-patient school teacher, as well as with some of the nurses. I’ll never forget Linda, who would sit with me and braid my hair whenever I had her as my nurse.
During this treatment, the hospital took a huge step that allowed me to maintain my freedom, even when restricted at various points by crutches, walkers, wheelchairs; you name it, I’ve had it. I was the first patient Shriners ever allowed to become an outpatient while still having the Ilizarov. Sure, I had a huge metal frame around my leg, had to take all kinds of medicines and had to make sure I took care of daily treatments, but despite all of this, I could go to class. I could still go to friends’ houses, go to music lessons, play in the park. But that wasn’t enough. Thanks to the incredibly dedicated staff at Shriners, I was also able to walk around on my own. Apart from being the first patient released from the hospital with Ilizarov, I was also the first for whom a leg, attachable to the Ilizarov frame, was built.
I won’t lie, it wasn’t always easy. I will never forget my first day of third grade when, amidst all my excitement over new clothes, a new school, and new friends, the leg broke apart from my Ilizarov and I finished out the day in a wheelchair. Nor the time I fell while walking around outside and got a hairline fracture from my leg hitting metal leg attached to the frame. But no need for an emergency room visit or anything like that; Each time, my parents just took me to Shriners and they quite happily made room for me in the doctors’ schedules and put all my pieces back together.
As I grew older, Shriners adapted both to my heightened sense of self-image and to my greater desire for activity. In middle school I got my first leg with an adjustable ankle, and you cannot imagine my joy at finally being able to wear high-heeled shoes. This joy wore off somewhat quickly when I realized what a pain they are to walk in, but you can be sure that I still got myself a nice pair of black shoes and wore them whenever I could get away with it. And when I asked for a leg that would let me push myself further in sports, my prosthetic doctor didn’t hesitate to make me a sports leg. Not only that, he told me that if I ever needed a leg more specialized to a specific sport, I should just let him know.
It’s hard to imagine where I would be were it not for Shriners. It would’ve been very difficult to get prosthetics for me growing up, never mind the fancier legs I started getting once I was older. Nor would I have been able to live my life with the peace of mind that I could take chances and if something went wrong, I would always have Shriners there to help me out. Just recently I went to see my doctor with a sports leg that had, quite possibly, taken a bit more abuse than it was designed for. He took a good look at it, spent some time taking it apart, replaced a few small parts, cleaned it out, and handed it back to me. When I apologized sheepishly for having put the leg through so much, he waved me off and just answered “Don’t worry about it. Keep living your life.”
For twenty one years that precise attitude has let me take advantage of a host of opportunities that would’ve otherwise seemed prohibitive. With Shriners there for me, I’ve learned that I’m not disabled or less abled. If anything, I am differently abled, but that’s nothing that can’t be overcome with a little research, some handy tools and a few spare parts. Shriners has given me everything I need to be myself and to find success with the greatest possible ease, and they have never charged me a dime for it. I cannot even imagine what my medical bill would come out to at this age. A few wheelchairs, a few sets of crutches, some walkers, and many doctors’ visits, all individually costing in the hundreds of dollars. On top of that, several surgeries and many prolonged hospital stays, of which I cannot begin to imagine the cost. And of course, there’s the legs, at several thousand dollars each.
On my twenty-first birthday I will graduate from Shriners’ hospital. It is, after all, a hospital for children, and I won’t be a child in any sense any longer. For this occasion, I want to give back a little bit of what they have given me. I want to raise money for the hospital that has supported me in so many ways, beyond any kind of care money could buy. So please forgo any gifts of jewelry or clothes and don’t buy me a drink to celebrate my 21st. Instead, donate some money to this fund. It would mean the world to me to be able to thank the people who have helped me live my life. Who knows, maybe this money could help fund some other little girls’ first leg and help her begin her life with no adventure off-limits. Thank you all so much!